In Martin Luther's Small Catechism he borrows a line from St. Augustine about what defines a "god." A god is whatever you fear, love, and trust above all things. So, in his explanation of the First Command in the Catechism, Luther explains: "You shall have no other gods. What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things."
This explanation, which has been kicking around the church since at least the fourth century, also establishes a beachhead for pastoral care. You see, in pastoral care, typically we're dealing with how the First Command has broken loose in someone's life to drive them from Christ -- from faith in this man Jesus, who is true God -- to some other god. When fear, love, and trust of Jesus breaks loose from it's mooring in God's baptismal promises to us, all kinds of gods are dredged up from the abyss of our imaginations to replace him as the object of our worship.
A pastor who's got his antennae tuned up for a person's confession will listen for where the First Command has broken loose in a Christian's life. He will listen for where the command has laid him open and left him naked and exposed and ashamed before God and his neighbors. And, ultimately, the pastor listens for the reason why a person doesn't hear Gospel in the First Command. Why a Christian no longer hears and takes comfort in the knowledge that Jesus has fulfilled the command for him.
When the First Command busts us open, we run in circles. Our fears overwhelm us. How will we pay the bills? Why did she leave us? Where was God when I needed him? Or, maybe it's love that turns us inward on ourselves. My baby died, and now I don't see the point of living. I've fallen out of love with my church, so I think it's time to find another one that better meets my needs. I can stop drinking any time I want. Then, there's faith itself that we make into a god. We end up worshipping our belief in our ability to believe. We trust that whatever our pastor says it's as if God Himself said it to us. We trust that our relationships, money, or material possessions are signs of God's blessing, and if we lose them it's a sign God's punished us for some wrong done.
When we dive into the First Command, the truth is that we will discover not just one or two false gods, but an endless parade of gods. As one theologian said, "Our mind is a factory of idols." We just can't stop ourselves from fearing, loving, or trusting someone or something other than Christ Jesus to be our Lord and God. But, what can we do about it? The simple (not easy) answer is: nothing. There's nothing we can do about it, except confess the truth of it. We're not godless so much as we have too many gods competing for our attention. But, that's why God sends us preachers.
God's preachers announce to us that, yes, we're drowning in false gods. Short of death, there's no stopping our endless pursuit of any god other than the Crucified God. But, all the Law and the prophets hung on the Crucified God. That's why Jesus suffered Himself to be "pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities." Jesus went to his cross knowing full well we can't do anything to stop ourselves from trampling the First Command underfoot in our chasing after false gods. That's why He chose to suffer for us, die and descend into hell for us, and be raised from the grave for us. He did it to accomplish all that is impossible for us to accomplish, beginning first and foremost with the First Command.
It was one of Luther's main points regarding pastoral care and Christian life throughout his career. If we don't know what kind of God is our God then we run into all sorts of trouble. We succumb to all sorts of temptation and sin. We'll even dress Satan up and worship him as a god depending on circumstances.
However, when the Fist Command is proclaimed as more than, "Do this and you will live, but don't do this and you will die"; when the First Command is preached as, "This is what Jesus has done for you," then the way is opened again for us straight back to the baptismal font. Because we can't go back in time to get what Jesus accomplished for us at Golgotha, He instead mercifully gives it to us in Baptism. Through God's Word and some water we receive the forgiveness of sins, rescue from death and the devil, and eternal salvation.
In Baptism we're given the information necessary to answer the question: "What kind of God is your God?" In Baptism, God's Spirit goes to work creating faith and hope in His promises, and love for the One doing all the doing for us. Through His Word and the water, God faiths us into the kingdom so that when we hear the First Command, it convicts then comforts us. It declares a killing word of Law, then a life-giving word of Gospel. It reveals the truth about us to ourselves -- we will fear, love, and trust anything other than Jesus -- then reveals to us that's exactly why Jesus came to fulfill the Law for us.
The First Command is a rich promise. God promises us we will not have any other gods. It's not a suggestion or an invitation not to have other gods. It's God's promise in fact: "You will have no other gods before Me." In His baptismal grace, our heavenly Father creates faith that looks to Jesus and declares, "I have no other god than this man, who is Jesus Christ!" This same grace is constantly at work to keep us bound up to our baptism, to use our baptism, to cling to Word of promise included with the water in baptism, even when it's revealed that we're chasing after other gods.
In that chaos of faith and false belief, hope and hopelessness, love and selfishness, God sends us a preacher, who's job description is to kill us and make us alive in Christ. And ground zero for all this is - for pastoral care and Christian life - the First Command: "You will have no other gods." And we say, "Amen, the crucified God, Christ Jesus, is my Lord and God."
Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, Online Content Director for Higher Things, a contributing writer at 1517 Legacy Project, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. Pastor Riley co-hosts the podcast: 'The Higher Things Simul Cast'. He is pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Webster, MN. A graduate of Concordia Universities in St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon, Pastor Riley received his seminary and post-graduate education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He colloquized into the LC-MS from the ELCA in 2008. He is married to Annie, and is the father of four children: Owen, Alma, Hoshea, and Hallel.